D.D. Guttenplan's American Radical. 

Reading between the lines.
June 22 2009 6:57 AM

Saint Izzy

The tiresome canonizing of I.F. Stone.

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Guttenplan is right in noting that thousands of Americans viewed Stalinist Russia through rose-colored glasses in the 1930s. Ignoring all hints of genocide from the left while obsessing over genocide from the right became their selective way of viewing the world. It all revolved around fear, says Guttenplan—fear of Nazis abroad and fascists at home. That, we are told, is why Stone supported so many Communist causes in the 1930s without actually joining the Communist Party (what some might call a distinction without a difference). Stone saw communism as the true enemy of domestic fascism, much as he saw Stalin as the true enemy of Hitler. "They did it in Italy," Stone wrote of the fascists in 1934. "They did it in Germany. They did it in Austria. They will try to do it in America."

The trouble, however, is that Guttenplan sees no contradiction between Stone's soft spot for Stalinism, on the one hand, and his journalistic integrity, on the other. In truth, Stone never seriously complained about Stalin's infamous labor camps or his strangling of the Russian press. Indeed, Stone's excuse for ignoring mass murder in the Soviet Union was chillingly simple. Revolutions, he explained, "do not take place according to Emily Post."

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When America moved to the right in the 1940s and '50s, Stone paid the price. He became, in his own words, an "ideological typhoid Mary," shunned by old friends and attacked by new enemies. He responded by starting his own weekly, four pages long, which attracted attention as a quirky counterbalance to blander national publications. Most readers shared Stone's long-held views about the dangers of domestic fascism and the evils of American imperialism. But his relentless criticism of the Vietnam War, as well as his enchantment with a new crop of left-wing dictators like Fidel Castro, made him a hero to many young protesters in the 1960s. Through it all, Stone stuck to his core beliefs while the world changed around him.

What does one make of all this? Guttenplan looks at Stone's 60-year career and sees a journalist who remained "both radical and independent"—a view that seems misguided at best. The sad truth is that radicalism and independent thinking were mutually exclusive elements for Stone, with the former dominating the latter. In the 1930s, Stone's devotion to the Soviet Union determined his stance on virtually every political issue. During World War II, his fierce support for American involvement centered once more on the Soviet issue—his belief that the defeat of Nazi Germany and the survival of Stalinist Russia both depended on U.S. military power.

Indeed, Stone's behavior in these years reached the point of zealotry. What else can be said of a journalist who called for the federal prosecution of wartime dissenters while remaining mum on the greatest civil liberties disaster in our history, the internment of 110,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry, the majority of whom were citizens of the United States? In the Cold War era, Stone charted a course that condemned U.S. foreign and domestic policy at almost every turn. Sometimes he was on target; sometimes he was wrong. Rarely, however, were his positions even remotely "independent."        

Sanitizing Stone's record makes him a less credible figure. His genius lay not in what he wrote but in his refusal to be silenced. A life like his—passionate, combative, and resilient—is poorly served by hagiography. Stone deserves better.

David Oshinsky holds the Jack S. Blanton chair in history at the University of Texas and is a distinguished scholar in residence at New York University. His books include A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy